Punjab’s tryst with destiny

The 50th anniversary of Punjabi Suba is being celebrated by the Punjab govt with gusto. Here is a look at the history and politics of the movement, and its consequences, five decades after the trifurcation of the state.

Written by Man Aman Singh Chhina | Updated: October 24, 2016 1:05 pm
50 anniversary, punjab history, punjab trifurcation, indian express, View of the newly constructed Golden Temple Corridor in Amritsar. (Express Photo by Rana Simranjit Singh)

The second partition of Punjab became effective on November 1, 1966 when the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966 came into force. A state that lost considerable area to Pakistan in 1947, was further reduced due to the emerging internal politics of the time. A substantial area in the southern part of Punjab went on to become Haryana, while the hill districts were awarded to the then union territory of Himachal Pradesh. From the point of view of the Sikhs, though, the demographics changed in their favour. From a Hindu-majority state, now Sikhs dominated, thus achieving one of the historical aims behind the Punjabi Suba movement.

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The History

The genesis of the demand for Punjabi Suba can be traced back to the 1909 Minto-Morley Reforms, which first introduced the principle of separate Muslim electorates. Krishan Gopal Lamba writes in his book, Dynamics of Punjabi Suba Movement: “Since then the Sikhs had been trying to protect their political interests in Punjab. The partition of Punjab and the distribution of population (at 1947) was such that the Akali party launched a Punjabi Suba mo vement to to carve out a Sikh majority state on the basis of Punjabi language”.

Master Tara Singh is credited by many for having revived the movement after Independence taking cue from other states being carved on the basis of language. According to Bir Devinder Singh, an academic observer of Sikh political history of Punjab, the Akalis realised the Sikhs were a tiny minority in Punjab with possibly no role in future governance. “A way out was to ask for Punjabi Suba on linguistic basis. But the Jan Sangh opposed it and this, in a way, consolidated the Akali position,” he says.

There has always been a debate on the popular support the demand for Punjabi Suba had. A 1966 book Minority Politics in Punjab, written by Baldev Raj Nayyar (Princeton University), brings out that while the Akali Dal met with considerable success as far as the agitational strategies were concerned in the run up to the formation of Punjabi Suba, it had failed to secure 25 per cent support not only in Punjab but also in the pure-Punjabi speaking areas. “In the third general elections of 1962 it secured less than 20 per cent votes in the so-called pure Punjabi speaking areas. The author argued that the “In the face of its performance in elections, the Akali Dal could not claim, as it seeks to do, that a majority of the population supports its demand of Punjabi Suba”.

Bir Devinder maintains that regardless of the limited support, eventually, the Akali Dal succeeded in getting what it wanted due to a power vacuum in the state after then Congress CM Partap Singh Kairon, who vehementally opposed the movement, was ousted. The Akali Dal subsequently formed a coalition government in the state with support from Communist parties and Jan Sangh.

In his book, Paul R Brass notes the strong opposition from Jan Sangh to the Punjabi Suba, “demanding not only the maintenance of a multi communal state but the enlargement of the Hindu majority in that state through the inclusion of Himachal Pradesh in it”.

However, contradictions in their positions did not prevent an alliance. It broke off later on language issues, but in their new-age versions, the Akali Dal and BJP, are back together in a partnership that has proved durable.

50 years hence

So what has the Punjabi Suba achieved five decades down the road? Economists believe the results have not been encouraging in the long run due to governance and allied issues, coupled with the loss of districts abutting New Delhi to Haryana.

According to economist and former Director General of Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID), Dr Sucha Singh Gill, Punjab’s economic growth after the trifurcation was due to momentum from previously growing economy.

“Punjab had been growing since 1955 and despite the trifurcation, the momentum ensured the state remained number one in the country in per capita income till about 1981. This is the time when the growth stopped and because of the years lost to terrorism, the economy stagnated. From 1991 onwards started the decline where other states started overtaking Punjab,” he says.

According to Dr Gill, in the aftermath of the Punjabi Suba, it would be safe to say that Haryana has done better than Punjab, and utilised well the hubs it has in Faridabad and Gurgaon next to the National Capital Region.

Food expert and agriculture economist, Devinder Sharma, says Punjabi Suba has “meant nothing”. “In a new state we should have had a new economic model to show to the country. Punjabi Suba or no Suba, we are deliberately keeping farmers impoverished,” he says. Sharma believes successive governments in Punjab have done nothing for agricultural diversification. “The point is that we got an opportunity to do it but lost it. We have wasted five decades, and did not learn any lesson,” he says, holding the polity of the state and the economists to blame for this.

Bir Devinder terms Punjabi Suba as a “Subi” or a tiny state. “What is the celebration for? We could not get Chandigarh as capital, we do not have a separate high court, the issue of river water is unresolved and as far as the inclusion of Punjabi speaking areas of Haryana are concerned that is all but forgotten. The Panthic ideology has changed, Akali Dal has opened its doors for non-Sikhs too. Punjabi used to be spoken to till Palwal but now it is limited till Shambhu barrier with Haryana. What have we got? Betrayal? BJP had opposed Punjabi Suba and now is in power in Centre and Haryana, so there is no hope from them. Is the government conceding that they have no hope for Punjab’s demands?” he questions.

For hardcore Panthic supporters too, the Punjabi suba has fallen short of expectations. Veteran Akali leader and former Secretary of Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Manjit Singh Calcutta, who took part in the movement says great sacrifices were made by the Akali Dal cadres for the movement. “We faced lot of trials and tribulations. But what did we get? Master Tara Singh was the first political leader in Independent India to be arrested. The first elected government to be dismissed in Independent India was the Akali ministry of PEPSU,” he says, describing it as “a great betrayal of the Sikhs”.

Calcutta feels that 50 years down the line the whole purpose of Punjabi Suba has been defeated. ” I have also been party to all the mistakes. Today we have reduced the demand for Chandigarh, Punjabi speaking areas and river waters to just a few sentences in the Governor’s address in budget session. It is only a paper exercise. Punjabi Suba was about Sikh consolidation, but it is nowhere in sight,” he says wistfully.